Smoke & Mirrors: what you need to know about barbecue restaurants
“Hey, you seem like a pretty OK person, but sometimes you can be a real elitist when it comes to BBQ. What’s up with that?”
Oh hey yourself! Thanks for asking. Yeah, I have pretty strong opinions on barbecue. Well see, Texas (and all other smoker style) BBQ is so hot right now in both the American and international food scenes, which means there are lots of virgin BBQ eaters trying their first taste of smoked meats in one of the many BBQ trailers/pop ups/restaurants that have opened around the globe. As this trend grows, it’s nice to understand a little more about what you’re eating and how it’s being prepared.
While many Americans have grown up understanding what smokers are and how they work, most of those in the BBQ diaspora aren’t even aware that what is collectively termed “BBQ” can actually produced in a variety of ways.
IGNORANCE IS BLISS.
I grew up in a household where steak was only ever served well done. For years it was the only way I had ever had steak, and I still really liked it. Because, steak is delicious, and I knew no better. Then one day, I had my first medium rare steak experience, and I never ate well done again. In fact these days, my preference is rare.
Really, eating properly cooked BBQ is the same experience; once you’ve had it done right, you can never go back to accepting the “meh” version. For me personally, that means that I would rather wait to eat the great stuff than settle for something unremarkable.
BARBECUE REFERS TO ‘LOW AND SLOW’ OR HOT SMOKE COOKING.
Generally, the term barbecue refers to cooking via a wood fired indirect heat source. The cook times using this method usually take significantly longer than other cooking processes and run on much lower temperatures, hence the nickname “low and slow”. The heat source isn’t always indirect, as with Carolina whole hog BBQ which is done over coals, but the cook time is definitely always slow.
Here are a few examples of dishes that aren’t actually barbecue:
Pork ribs cooked in an oven for four hours, smothered in smokey bbq sauce. Sorry, not barbecue. A lot of people think that ribs automatically = barbecue, but they certainly don’t if they haven’t been cooked in a method as described above. Same deal goes for the sauce – you could cover lettuce in barbecue sauce and it still wouldn’t make it barbecue. And take some time to consider, if it has been cooked in an oven, what exactly made the sauce smokey?
Beef brisket, sous vide until tender and finished on a wood fire grill. Brisket is another buzzword – it’s the name of a cut of meat, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been barbecued. To translate this cheffy description, the vacuum sealed meat has been cooked in a water bath, then finished on a grill to give it colour. Definitely not barbecue.
Pulled Pork sandwich. Probably the most common of all the fauxbecue dishes. Traditionally, Pulled Pork is pork shoulder/neck that has been barbecued and then pulled apart. Technically, pulled pork can be exactly what it sounds like, pork that has been pulled/shredded, no guarantee as to how it was cooked. If you’re ordering this in an establishment that doesn’t seem to have anything else on their menu that’s remotely related to BBQ, you can bet it was just slow roasted in an oven. Repeat after me one more time: ‘heck no, that ain’t barbecue!’.
NOT ALL SMOKERS ARE CREATED EQUAL.
The main types of smokers used in restaurants selling BBQ; the offset smoker, the electric smoker, the wood fired gas smoker, coal pit and a pellet smoker/grill. Each of these different units does have an affect on the taste, appearance and sometimes texture of the finished product. Of course, there are exceptions where a great cook can make a rig perform well beyond it’s means, but generally each different unit comes with it’s own nuances and limitations.
Variations include a brick pit and converted LPG tank, and these are often referred to as “stick burners”. The meat sits in the main chamber of the unit, while a firebox to the side provides the smoke and indirect heat. Woods used are usually hickory, mesquite, post oak and some fruit woods. There is no electricity, gas or other power source other than the fire, and the temperature is regulated solely by the use of vents, doors and dampers.
It takes a great deal of skill and practice to end up with a final product that is moist and tender on the inside with a dark crust on the outside, as opposed to an undercooked or dried out hunk of flesh. Wind is a challenge with these smokers, wreaking havoc with fire temperatures and cook times. The use of natural wood also presents a difficulty, because the cleanest smoke comes from the hottest fire, but this type of cooking requires low heat, so the balance between temperature and smoke quality needs to be found. If the temperature drops, the smoke gets nasty and can ruin the batch.
Meat cooked on these smokers will have an intense red smoke ring a few millimetres from the exterior, and also (when done right) a dark, firm crust on the outside known as bark.
Taking stock of all the barbecue I’ve eaten over the years, the most memorable and delicious stuff has been cooked on one of the above units with very few exceptions.
Fairly basic in setup, these pits are usually rectangular, filled with wood or smouldering coals and are topped with a grate upon which the meat is cooked. Most commonly, this is used for particular regional styles of cooking, including Texas pit and Carolina whole hog. It’s one of the few examples of direct heat barbecuing. Temperature is controlled solely by manipulating and manoeuvring the fire and coals.
For me personally, this and offset smokers are the ultimate barbecues, in that they demonstrate the required skill of real pit masters. Those men and women who wake while the rest of us are sleeping to start their fires, get splinters in their hands, charcoal on their faces. Those pit masters who know how hot a fire is just by looking at the color of the flames, feeling the radiant heat of the coals, or who have identified the hot spots of their smoker through years of trial and error. Those incredible talents who battle the elements to keep their fire at temperature, knowing that in just a few hours come hell or high water, there will be customers expecting to eat who will not accept “it was windy” as an excuse.
WOOD FIRED OVEN
This one is a most interesting category indeed… These ovens (the most widely known is the Oyler) are 100% wood fired, so the barbecue they cook has amazing flavor and bark, but they are automated to varying degrees. Most have a thermostat that can be set, some even have humidity levels that can be controlled, and they also have a rotisserie feature to avoid hot spots and keep the meat moving in the chamber (and self basting!). At the back of the unit is a device that captures the smoke and heat from the fire, and releases it either into the cooking chamber if more smoke/heat is needed, or straight to an exhaust vent if the chamber has the required temps already.
The wood fired oven produces excellent quality barbecue, but requires (depending on how deluxe the model is) little if any human interaction after the initial meats are loaded, aside from adding in the occasional log. Operators still need to know what temp to cook at, and figure out how long their meats take, but once they have that dialled in, the rest is a cake walk. So basically, these units have all the flavour without most of the difficulties and laboriousness of offset pits. It’s a tough combo for a commercial restauranteur to resist.
WOOD FIRED GAS SMOKER
If you ever hear someone refer to a place as “cooking with a Southern Pride”, this is likely what they’re talking about (although technically Southern Pride do make electric smokers, too).
The primary heat source is gas, but whole logs are burned to impart the smoke, and the temperature is set with a digital gauge that doesn’t require monitoring. The benefit here is getting the quality of clean burning smoke rather than sawdust or chips. Meat cooked on a WFG can have a smoke ring, and can also achieve a dark bark. These units are also more commercially economical, with the heat and smoke being recycled through the cooking chamber, and the rotisserie function lessening the issue of hotspots. These units can also be run without wood turning them into giant roasting ovens.
In heavily urban environments, it’s often difficult for a restaurant to use anything but this type of smoker or an electric unit, as many city laws may prohibit the fire and excessive smoke an offset or pit produces. An offset may even be subject to a permit whereas a kitchen could install a WFG or electric as they would any other piece of equipment. So sometimes it’s a matter of working with your limitations.
These are ovens first, smokers second. They are combination ovens that run on electricity and have a small compartment built inside where wood chips are ignited to provide a smokey flavor. The primary cooking and heat comes from the oven, which is set to a specific temperature with a gauge much like your oven at home. Without doubt, this is the easiest of all the smoker types to operate, along with the pellet grills & WFG. Some units even have presets for pork shoulder, brisket, etc, so even the most average cook need only hit the right button and walk away. There is usually no smoke ring, nor bark on the finished product.
Purists argue against the taste of meat these oven units produce. The smouldering smoke has a more acrid taste than that of a clean burn. Further, they can have a final flavour that is overall more roasted than barbecued. Someone eloquently summed up the problem with oven smokers as ‘the meat lacked “character” that you get by burning fuel for heat’. Oh, and Josh Ozersky sums up the rest of the mediocrity nicely in this article, calling it ‘the barbecue equivalent of the Easy Bake Oven’.
For all intents and purposes, this is an offset smoker using tiny little logs. A hopper on the side of the unit is filled with compressed wood pellets which are available in a range of wood species/types. An electric ignition heats a rod which ignites the pellets, which are moved through the unit via an auger. The unit self regulates via a thermostat and blower, which moves air into the chamber to maintain the set temperature. So effectively, fill up your hopper, set your temp, walk away and check occasionally. A smoke ring and bark are achievable with a pellet grill.
A common criticism is that these units produce a far “less smokey” taste result than their wood burning offset cousins, which is actually as a result of the fire being overly efficient. Some cooks employ the use of an additional smoking tube accessory to up the smoke flavour. These grills are popular for competition BBQ, where a strong bark is less desirable and most of the meats are sauced and foiled.
But, aren’t there other types of smokers too?
Absolutely, there are some other types of smokers I haven’t covered here, like Big Green Eggs, gravity smokers and bullet-style smokers like the Weber Smokey Mountain, but I’ve purposefully limited the range to the type of smoker you’re most likely to find at retail barbecue restaurants. In my opinion, there’s a super easy method to determine the calibre of barbecue restaurant you’re eating at; make sure you see this:
So, what does it all mean?
Well, something, but also nothing. At the end of the day, your taste is supremely individual, and taste preference is never right or wrong. People don’t cue up for hours because of what’s out the back, but rather what’s on the plate. But, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll be able to find a link between those legendary BBQ joints with a long line and the type of smoker that’s managed to make them so popular.
Got an idea, project or product to share?
Some folks call it loin, others call it backstrap- whatever you call it, don't cut it up into steaks! Check out this whole stuffed venison backstrap.
Learn my top 4 commandments that are essential to achieving a successful brisket cook (plus a few bonus tips).